Wheeler Upham reaches 135 years old and installs new forward-thinking leadership



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“I’m very excited about my new leadership position,” says Michael TerBeek, who has just been elected secretary, treasurer and board chair of the highly-respected 135-year-old firm of Wheeler Upham. “I hope to be part of the management of this firm when we celebrate 150 years.”

Glenn Smith, the newly-elected president, and TerBeek, a business lawyer who devotes about one third of his time to litigation,  have some big shoes to fill. The team takes over from leadership that included Gary Maximiuk, John Roels, and Bob Gillette. (Maximiuk and Roels will continue to work for Wheeler Upham, while Gillette retired in 2012.)

The firm is the oldest continuously operating law firm in Grand Rapids. Though there may be contenders for that title among firms whose headquarters are not in Grand Rapids, Wheeler Upham started in the city and intends to stay.

Several years ago, they moved from a space they had occupied in the Trust Building for over 100 years to pleasant, modern offices in  the Calder Plaza building (see photo, page 2).

Starting out as Fletcher and Wanty in 1983, the firm became Wanty and Knappen on Fletcher’s death in 1899. Both George Wanty and Loyal Knappen went on to become judges in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, and Knappen continued on to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

From there, variations of Knappen and (Jacob) Kleinhans appeared in the firm’s name. In 1918 it became Knappen, Uhl & Bryant. Attorneys Wheeler and Upham were added to the letterhead in 1957, and it was as Wheeler, Upham, Bryant & Uhl that the firm incorporated in 1982. (The name was shortened in 1992.)

Though only one of the firm’s ten attorneys is a woman, Patricia Gardner (now a family court judge) is thought to have been the first female shareholder in any  Grand Rapids firm.

Both Smith and TerBeek are optimistic about Wheeler Upham’s future. “There are a lot of unique things that we do here,” says Smith, whose employment law practice includes claims against the Postal Service, where he was an attorney at the start of his career. Smith also mentions ecclesiastical law.

TerBeek says that Wheeler Upham’s long history is part of what attracted him to join in 2005. “I was sold on the opportunities here; the history was really kind of intriguing to me.”
Smith even approached the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce about recognizing Wheeler Upham and other historic companies at its upcom
ing Epic Awards ceremony; the Chamber agreed.

“Mike and I are committed to continuing the legacy of Gary and all the other attorneys who have guided Wheeler Upham through its 135 years in Grand Rapids,” said Smith.